Contrary to Aristotle, the eminent logician, philosopher, and activist Bertrand Russell believed that virtue and morality play little part in political life. Rather, what most drives us to action, he argued, is selfish desire. Russell’s political philosophy could seem almost Machiavellian, most notably in his Nobel Prize speech 1950, in which he proclaims that “all human activity is prompted by desire.” (Hear Russell read an excerpt above.)
There is a wholly fallacious theory advanced by some earnest moralists to the effect that it is possible to resist desire in the interests of duty and moral principle. I say this is fallacious, not because no man ever acts from a sense of duty, but because duty has no hold on him unless he desires to be dutiful. If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths.
Russell’s argument about desire admits “there is no limit to the efforts that men will make, or to the violence that they will display” in the face of perceived scarcity, and his observations recall not only the realpolitik of Machiavelli, but the insights of that most prominent theorist of desire, Sigmund Freud.
Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise. The boa constrictor, when he has had an adequate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs another meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this.
Rather than libidinous instincts, however, Russell names four main political desires that cannot be satisfied: Acquisitiveness (“the wish to possess as much as possible), Rivalry (“a much stronger motive”), Vanity (“a motive of immense potency”), and Love of Power (“which outweighs them all”). We may note the tremendous degree to which all four desires seem actively at work in shaping our current world. All four of these qualities greet us every morning on our smartphones and never let up, day after day. But it has always been so to one degree or another, Russell argues. The important thing is to be clearsighted on the matter. Although selfish political desires can and largely are destructive, they need not always be so.
Political desires like the love of power may “have other sides which are more desirable.” Scholarly and scientific endeavors may be “mainly actuated by a love of power….. In politics, also, a reformer may have just as strong a love of power as a despot. It would be a complete mistake to decry love of power altogether as a motive.” “Russell,” writes Maria Popova, is “a thinker of exceptional sensitivity to nuance and to the dualities of which life is woven.” He cautions that we cannot simply dismiss our most powerful motive as “a wholesale negative driver.”
The real problem, as Russell sees it, lies in “circumstances in which populations will fall below selfishness, if selfishness is interpreted as enlightened self-interest.” The phenomenon we observe of people “voting against their interests” is for Russell an occasion “on which they are convinced that they are acting from idealistic motives.”
Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power. When you see large masses of men swayed by what appear to be noble motives, it is as well to look below the surface and ask yourself what it is that makes these motives effective. It is partly because it is so easy to be taken in by a facade of nobility that a psychological inquiry, such as I have been attempting, is worth making.
Rather than virtue or morality, politics most requires “intelligence,” Russell concludes, “a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education.” These are not the forms of education we generally receive: “Schools are out to teach patriotism,” he says, “newspapers are out to stir up excitement; and politicians are out to get re-elected. None of the three, therefore, can do anything towards saving the human race from reciprocal suicide.”
The Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation hangs heavy over Russell’s speech. As long as humans are gripped by hatred and fear of others and held in thrall to political delusions, he suggests, the possibility of mutually assured destruction remains. On the other hand, if we were honest about our desires, and “if men were actuated by self-interest,” Russell writes, “which they are not…. if men desired their own happiness as ardently as they desired the misery of their neighbors…. the whole human race would cooperate.” Read the full text of Russell’s Nobel speech here.